The Quality of Time


“An optic,” thought Mitya. He bent over to have a look.

A watch. A round face beneath glass.

Mitya was standing under the light of a streetlamp. Dusk was setting in, and the world was losing its colours. Mitya felt the electric light slide over his skin. The watch was old, with a worn strap. Mechanical. Saying “tick” and “tock.” Mitya dropped the watch into his pocket. In the distance, behind the houses, the avenue hummed.

Mitya headed off along a narrow alley. A man materialised, appearing from the shade of a poplar. He looked in some confusion at Mitya coming towards him. “Excuse me.”

Mitya stopped.

“Excuse me. I’m sorry to hold you up. Have you by any chance found a watch?”

Mitya was sixteen. It was not often that adults spoke to him quite so politely.

“Like this.” The stranger sketched a big circle in the air.

Mitya brought the watch out of his pocket and offered it to the man.

“Oh,” said the stranger, without taking the watch.

He was a little shorter than Mitya, very skinny, with golden stubble on his dark face. He still seemed confused, peering short-sightedly with pale eyes. He was giving off a smell, of something half forgotten.

A curious black smell, Mitya thought.

“Yes,” said the stranger, looking at the watch in Mitya’s hand, “a good watch. Reliable. Watches are not made like this these days. These days everything is more or less disposable. Seventeen jewels. From the factory Slava. Your name might perhaps be Slava?”


“They are never slow. How much money do you have with you?”

“Fifty rubles.”

“Not enough, really. Ah well. Come then. Let us make an exchange. Seventeen for fifty. I am persuaded by your eloquence.”

Under the stranger’s pale gaze, Mitya took out a 50-ruble note. The stranger grabbed it with his strong brown fingers. And dissolved.

The watch was chirring in Mitya’s hand. Like an insect, he thought. An insect, devouring time. Eternally hungry.

Mitya returned home. He dawdled, looking for the glimmer of a coin beneath his feet. His mother had sent him to buy bread: half a brown loaf and a baguette. Mitya was ashamed that he’d fallen for the old man’s story. A child beguiled by a toy. Like a magpie, he’d been fascinated by the shining optic. Mitya walked, his hands shoved in his pockets, his finger stroking the smooth, domed glass.

When it comes down to it, this watch—and any watch in the world—is like the child’s game Secret.  Where you bury beloved possessions under glass, and later come back to scrape off the earth and look at them. Bury the watch with the glass uppermost. Hands running in a circle—that’s the whole secret, right there. Time buried in the black earth.

Lights were burning in the windows of the big house. In some places bright, in others more subdued. Mitya turned and headed for the entrance.

He opened the door with his key. He slowly unlaced his trainers, pulled them off, and pushed them under the shoe rack so as to leave the passage clear. A man’s voice came from his mother’s room. A blind voice. Going unseeing. Stumbling across an obstacle and falling silent.

He headed into the kitchen but left the room unlit. He liked the rippling, underwater half-darkness with the running reflections thrown by the cars passing below.

Thrown light and half-darkness. Mystery. Untold to the end. The possibility of a step. Towards the light or towards the shadow. Or, rather, the impossibility.

Mitya turned on the kettle. He opened the fridge and touched a saucepan of soup, but soup didn’t appeal, so he fetched out a sausage and cut off a decent slice. Ate it. Poured boiling water into a mug, tipped in some instant coffee, stirred for a long time.

Incandescent lava.

He put aside his coffee and took out the watch. 20.35, it said. The wall clock said 20.30. The wall clock was always right.

The strap was shabby but strong. A simple watch, without even a second hand.

Mitya pulled out the crown to put the watch right and saw a shadow on the white stool. The shadow became firmer, took on features and a smell. The very same black smell. The scrawny man touched the golden stubble on his skinny, dark face and asked Mitya, “So?”

“So…?” repeated Mitya in a whisper.

“You have the watch in your hands, the crown is pulled out, I am here. To what time are we setting the watch?”

“Meaning what? I just wanted. Back. Five minutes.” Mitya uncertainly indicated the white clock face on the wall. “To put it right. I would have done it myself. Turned it back.”

“My good sir. Or what is it you say now? Comrade?”

“As you wish.”

“My good sir, you will not turn back time yourself. I am here to do that.”


“Five minutes?”

“Well, I…” Mitya was staring at this man into whom he had recently bumped, who had fobbed him off with this old watch in return for a fifty, and was now suddenly woven right out of the air, out of the half-darkness. Like in a novel.

He was dressed in shabby jeans, trodden-down trainers on bare feet, and a dark jacket with frayed cuffs from under which a t-shirt, seemingly clean, gave off a milky light.

“Let me explain. We shall literally go back five minutes. Or five years, if you wish. Whatever you say. Literally.”

“Meaning if we go back five years, I’ll be eleven?”

“Obviously. If you are sixteen now, then minus five will be eleven. If I know anything about arithmetic.”

Mitya heard firm, brisk steps. His mother was heading for the kitchen.

She turned on the light. Caught sight of the stranger and froze.

The man rose from the stool. “Greetings.”

“Greetings,” answered Mitya’s mother.

“Mum.” Mitya stood up and smiled. His smile was his shield. Behind it he hid his confusion, awkwardness, weakness. Fear. Occasionally triumph. “Mum. This is our neighbour. He…I asked him to come in. He…”

“Fyodor Ivanovich,” said the man with a small bow.

“Fyodor Ivanovich promised to help me with my maths.”

“In the dark?”

“I was just about to turn on the light.”

“Marvellous. And, apparently, to fetch your textbook. Could you speak a little more quietly? I have a class.”

“Of course.”

“Sometimes even a rustle is disturbing.”

“I know.”

“Thank you.”

Mitya’s mother looked coldly at him.

Mitya smiled.

His mother left.

In the bright electric light, the stranger grew older. The light deepened his wrinkles, and his eyes sank back and seemed to be looking out of ancient caves.

“I am tired,” the stranger said, his voice weaker now. “Please decide how much time we are to move away. Five minutes will suit you? Or perhaps ten? Do not dither, young man, I beg you. It is hard for me here.”

“I understand. Hold on. Just a second. Important question. Will I remember what happened? These five minutes that we—you—are going to strike out, will I remember them?”


“Got it. Understood. I thought so. Then here’s what. We won’t ‘move away’ any time. I’m sorry…”

Mitya did not finish. There was no one to talk to: the stranger had disappeared. Mitya touched the stool he had been sitting on; the seat still felt warm. And the smell had not had time to dissipate. Mitya suddenly recognised it. The railway. A station at night. Sleeper, fuel oil, hot metal, the far, far distance, ash, rust, sweat.

Singing reached him from his mother’s room. Lemeshev, one of the Duke’s arias from Rigoletto: Dum-de-dum schiavo son dei vezzi tuoi. An old gramophone recording. Mitya carefully eased the crown back to its position snug against the case and put on the watch, fastening it on the very last hole. The watch dangled loosely on his skinny wrist and slid down to the heel of his hand.

Mitya tipped his cold coffee into the sink. The tenor restarted his ballad. Now, though, he was not alone. A lively male voice was echoing him, trying not to fall behind or run ahead. The gramophone voice fell silent leaving the living voice alone, without support. On it went. Blind, stumbling, blundering onto the wrong steppe and into the trackless forest, bumping into trees. Still it did not give up; on it went. That’s good, thought Mitya.

The singing stopped. Footsteps sounded. His mother’s. Mitya could always recognise them, their special rhythm, confident and cautious at one and the same time. It was as if the right foot were walking decisively and the left unconfidently, not very much trusting the right. The man’s steps were quiet, shuffling. Coughing, almost. A switch clicked in the hallway. Mitya caught the sound of his mother’s chest voice, not loud, and he froze on the spot, as he always did when she spoke like that. Then the male voice, still blind, unseeing. His mother again. The turn of the lock. The door opening and closing. Click. Steps.

His mother entered the kitchen without a glance at Mitya. She pulled out a drawer in the unit near the stove and fetched out a pack of cigarettes. She stood up, leaned back against the unit, clicked her lighter. Looked at Mitya through the smoke.

“I didn’t buy any bread,” confessed Mitya.

“What happened?”

“I lost the money.”

His mother made no reply to this, just narrowed her eyes even more. Maybe from the smoke.

“I lost the money, but found a watch.”

Mitya stretched out his hand. The glass optic sparkled, flashing with reflected light. “Factory Slava, seventeen jewels. It’s five minutes fast but that doesn’t matter.”

His mother remained silent.

“He’s not a neighbour. Just a guy from off the street. Sorry. It just happened. We got talking.”

His mother turned on the tap and put the cigarette butt under the water. She threw the extinguished cigarette in the rubbish bin and left the kitchen.

“Damn it,” Mitya muttered. Then yelled, “Damn it!”

He heard the TV in his mother’s room come on. He got up and shuffled off to his own room.

Mitya did not turn on the light; he liked to sit in the twilight. He threw himself on the sofa, put his hands behind his head, and lay there looking at the dark spines of the books in the tall, old bookcases. He struck up the ballad from the gramophone: Dum-de-dum schiavo son dei vezzi tuoi. He was a baritone rather than a tenor, his voice not loud, but clear. He sang the ballad from the first word to the last. The moon came up and looked in through his already darkened window. His mother’s TV droned. Mitya fell into a doze.

He woke up to the light of morning. He did not recognise his own room, and wondered in surprise where he was. Probably because he had slept all night in his clothes. He did not immediately remember the watch, and for a split second stared at it in amazement, as if it were someone else’s.

Just after 8. Seven minutes past. In actual fact two; two minutes past eight. Oh, already three.

Mitya opened the transom. A grey, grey day.

The light was on in the kitchen and his mother was making fried eggs. Mitya thought it was probably this smell that had woken him up.

He sat down on a stool at the end of the table, hunched over, and watched his mother pick up an egg with a spatula and transfer it from the pan to a plate. Mitya would never have put it on a plate; he would have eaten it sizzling from the pan. Mitya’s mother paid no attention to him, as if he were not there. Im a ghost, Mitya thought morosely. A small, weightless ghost.

The mobile trembled and lit up from within. Mitya’s mother picked it up.

“Hi, Anya. No, I can’t go. I can’t leave Mitya on his own. No, I’m not kidding. Not remotely. He thinks he’s in great shape. He’s pushing one metre eighty now, honestly, I’m not lying, in the last six months…nowhere, as far as I can see, I mean, he exists…no brain. His eyes? Grey, yes, beautiful eyes…he’s had a growth spurt, but brains, no, he still hasn’t acquired any…yes, I was hoping that by now I would have an adult son, but he’s still the same, a puppy…he brought some bum into the house, right into the house, right into our peaceful kitchen, sat him at the table, God knows why, he didn’t explain, didn’t find it necessary, no explanation was forthcoming, he’s a fool, got himself taken in by some blarney or other, another time he’ll bring ten of them, and what, you never know what yarn they’ll spin him, he’ll believe it, he’s so gullible, a child, loves fairy tales, maybe he’ll be this stupid forever, I don’t know, I’ll die, and everyone here will take him for a ride, send him around the world, he’ll be begging for handouts on trains, he’s a fool, still, what can you expect from him, I give up. No, I’m not exaggerating, why? Yes. He sleeps in his clothes, doesn’t wash in the morning, he doesn’t care, that’s what a good boy he is, still, his eyes are grey. No, he’s not at school. He’s already finished with learning, he’s ready for adult life. Uh-huh.”

Mitya’s face was burning. He looked darkly at the fried egg going cold on his mother’s plate. At her cigarette smouldering in the ashtray.

“… What meeting? Honestly, I don’t remember. Oh, come on, why? It’s all in the past, no need to go stirring it all up. I don’t want to. Exactly. Without me. Say hi. Yes. Kiss kiss.”

His mother rang off and ate her egg. She picked up the copper Turkish coffee pot with the wooden handle, poured coffee, topped it up with water, put the pot on the hob, picked up her now-extinguished cigarette, clicked her lighter. Smoked and kept an eye on the coffee. The smoke was carried out of the open transom. Mitya looked at the pale blue flame. Outside, a dry leaf fell onto the cornice, from somewhere in the grey sky, from a heavenly tree. It was autumn up there in the sky.

Mitya’s mother drank her coffee and washed the crockery and ashtray after herself. Tidy. She slid past Mitya with unseeing eyes and left. Mitya heard her getting ready. He heard the smell of her perfume. He said to himself, The forecast was for rain. Don’t forget your umbrella.

The door slammed and Mitya went out into the hallway. The umbrella was lying on the hall table.

Mitya turned the shower full on. The water gushed down, drumming heavily. It was almost impossible to stand under it, but Mitya forced himself. The shower knocked all thoughts out of his head. He came out deafened, weakened, purified. He felt like an escapee, a survivor.

Still wet, he padded to his room. He caught a glimpse of his pale reflection in the mirror and stopped for a second. Someone strange there, not Mitya. Someone pathetic.

He made the bed. Pulled a complete change of clothes onto his still-damp body. T-shirt, pants, jeans, socks. The way a soldier puts on a clean change of clothes before a deadly battle. Mitya was getting ready for school as if preparing to go to war. The war had been going on for nine years with no hope of an early end. Would there ever be a last salvo—the Farewell Bell, the end of school? The war was protracted, dispiriting; trench warfare. A war of waiting. A war without enemies, without shooting, but still a war. It seemed to Mitya that at school his life was slowly ebbing away. He was sleepwalking through his lessons, and it was scary to be escorting his time on its last journey. School was the afterworld.

Today, though, it was already impossible not to go. It’s like going to the dentist, Mitya said to himself. You have to get through it. Endure. His mother had once told him that the whole of life was a matter of being patient. Mitya did not believe her. Silent rain was falling beyond the window. Sneaking, thought Mitya. Then he changed his mind. Why should the rain sneak? It’s just sleeping, sleeping on the go. On the fly. Mitya put on the watch; he had taken it off before showering. He grabbed his bag and the one exercise book he used for all his lessons. In the hallway he fished his trainers out from under the shoe rack without turning on the light as usual, and pulled them on.

Mitya flung open the door and found himself face to face with a young woman. She stepped back in alarm. Water was pouring from her folded umbrella. The woman looked confused.

“Greetings,” said Mitya softly.

“I’m here to see Natalya Alekseyevna,” the woman said indistinctly.

“Natalya Alekseyevna is not here.”

“We agreed. I am Valya. We have a class.”

“No way, not here and not now, because here and now she is not here. You can check for yourself. Please,” and Mitya stepped back, making room for the woman to enter the flat.

The woman did not go into the flat.

Mitya started to speak quickly, boldly, cheerfully. “Maybe you’ve got in a muddle, Valya? Or she has? Call her, that’s the way to find out.”

Mitya stepped out onto the landing towards her, spinning the keys in his hand.

The woman drew away from Mitya, took out her phone, and found the number on the list. Her umbrella was getting in her way, and she stuck it under her arm, still wet. She pressed the phone to her ear and listened anxiously.

“No answer.”

Her face was small, round, pale. She seemed to Mitya completely lost, like a child no one has come to meet at the station.

“We had a very precise agreement, here, look for yourself,” and she showed Mitya the screen of her mobile phone. “Here, her text, the time, the date, she fixed it herself, do you see?’

“Yes, I see, definitely, the time, the date, it’s all as you say, but she’s not here. What can I do to console you? A cup of tea?”

“What’s tea got to do with it?”

“I can offer you a lesson. I can absolutely take your lesson. Let’s go.”

“But you were going somewhere. You were doing something.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore. Please.”

She looked warily from the landing into the half-darkness of the hallway.

“Are you afraid?”


“What of?”


“I’m harmless.”

“That’s what you say.”

“Well, if you’re afraid to be alone with me in the flat, we can do a class right here. We can go down there, where the stairs turn. There’s a window, a wide windowsill. No problem.”

“Do you have documents?”

“I have a passport. I can fetch it. It’s inside.”

Without waiting for an answer, Mitya disappeared into the hallway.

He imagined her standing confused in front of this stranger’s wide open flat. In front of the entrance to the half-darkness of a stranger’s home. Breathing in the smell of a stranger’s life. Mitya came out with his passport and held it out to her. She did not take it. He opened it.

“Look at the photo. It’s me. Dmitry Olegovich. Born 1994. Unmarried. Smart.”

“The bit about being smart is in there, is it?’ She smiled. A win. And her voice is not trembling so much anymore.

“Of course it is. In attractive ink…” Mitya suddenly changed his tone, starting to talk seriously. “I really can take your class. I’m sorry that Mum forgot about the agreement. It’s the first time she’s done that as far as I can remember. But I know all her lessons. Consider me her best student. We can at least try. After all, you must have come a long way to get here and spent a long time travelling. It’s up to you. In any case, I apologise that it’s turned out like this.”


She’s given up. Yay. I really do know how to do this. Yay, yay, yay, yay. “Do come in. Welcome, Valya.”

He followed her into the hallway. He turned the light on—for her. So that everything was in the light, no dark corners.

“Don’t take off your shoes.”

“They’re soaked.”

“Then put some slippers on.”

“No need, thank you.”

“The floor is cold.”

“I have my own slippers. I brought them with me.”

He took her to his room. Thank God I made the bed. The table’s under a mountain of dust. “Please sit down at the table. I’ll turn on the light, it’s overcast outside and overcast in the house. I’ll take the armchair, it’s old, older than me. Tell me, please, why do you need these classes?”

“Why? Is it really important to know why?”

Mitya did not answer. He let the pause stretch out.

“I do understand, though. I went to English classes and they asked me why there as well. Just to be able to communicate, or read scientific books. Motivation. Okay, Let me explain. I’ve been made Head of Department. It sounds serious when you say it like that. It’s not really. But still. They should listen to me. Ideally. But I can’t get through to them. I can’t be convincing. I can’t formulate things convincingly. I don’t believe myself when I’m talking.”

Mitya undid the strap and took off the watch. The woman watched him warily. Mitya put the watch on the table.

“More convenient to keep track of the time this way. Mum usually puts an alarm clock on the table, but I don’t have an alarm clock here. I can’t sleep with its ticking.”

Mitya got up out of the armchair and headed towards the shelf, towards the gleaming spines of the books. “Do you like reading?”

“I don’t have time.”

“Do you have a positive attitude towards Dostoyevsky?”

“Not especially.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I can’t take more than one page. I feel sick.”


“A bit better.”

“But you take no pleasure in reading?”

“I don’t read, to be honest. Since school I haven’t opened a book. It…I don’t know. I find it hard. I don’t have time. Or energy. I’m not interested.”

“Wonderful,” said Mitya, and pulled a book out of the packed row. “Crime und Punishment,” he said. “Let’s have a look. Hmm, hmmm. Right. Here. Read. Svidrigailov’s monologue.”

In some confusion, she took the book from him. Peered at the text.

“Read it out loud.”


“Why not?”

“It’s disgusting.”

“What is exactly?”

“Him. He is. Totally.”

“Do you think he likes himself?”

“I don’t know. No.”

“Let’s suppose. I’m not saying I completely agree, but let’s suppose. Read it like that—in the voice of a person who disgusts himself.”

“I didn’t come here to study acting.”

“So what did you come to learn?”

“I’ve already told you.”

“Tell me again.”

‘To talk.”

“Well, you kind of know how to do that.”

“They can’t hear me.”

“I can hear you.”

“People don’t listen. I don’t mean you. At work. And not only…I’ve already explained.”

“Do they listen to him?”

“Svidrigailov? Yes.”

“Then try to get into his skin.”

“He revolts me.”

‘You said he revolts himself.”

“I’m not sure anymore.”

“Do you remember what happened to him in the end?”

“He went to America,” she said, uncertainly, questioningly.

“Almost. America is what he called the afterworld.”

“He died?” she asked, after a pause.

“He shot himself.”


“You know the answer to that, to some extent.”

“He disgusted himself?”

“Maybe. Read it. Go ahead. Out loud.”

She drew the book closer. She moved her lips, and…couldn’t read it.

“You know, when actors have to play negative characters, they look for the human in them. Try it.”

“You try it, and I’ll listen to how it sounds when someone else is doing it.”

“I’ll have a go, but not now. Too early now. Do you have brothers or sisters?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“My curiosity is not idle.”

“You’d think I’d come to a psychologist.”

“Have you seen a psychologist?”

“No. I’ve seen them in films. I have a brother, an older one. But we’ve hardly ever talked. He didn’t live with us.”

“What do you think about me?”

She looked at him surprised.

“Come on. Give it to me straight.”

“I haven’t talked to a sixteen-year-old for a long time. I don’t know, maybe you’re all like this now. As it were. You’re very sharp. Energetic. And the way you speak. As if you were forty years old. You’re already lecturing, Professor.”

Mitya burst out laughing.

“What else? What would you tell your best friend about me?”

“I don’t have a best friend.”

“And you’ve never had one?”

“I did at school. But I wouldn’t tell. Anyone. I don’t like talking.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t. I get tired. I’m already tired, with you. Not tired of you. Talking. I’m tired of talking.”

“So what? That’s what you came here for—to talk. Get used to it. Learn to find pleasure in it. We’ll get there. Try to describe my appearance.”

“Well…Tall. Grey eyes.”

Mitya burst out laughing. “Reminds me of Pushkin. Dubrovsky. Anyone would fit that description. A lot of people anyway. Can you describe Svidrigailov? Just his outward appearance. What kind of voice did he have?”

“I don’t know.”

“Low? High? Clear? A bit gravelly? And his appearance? Do you remember?”


“Well, imagine his appearance. Come on. Tall?”


“Taller than Raskolnikov?”


“What about his clothes?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what they wore then.”

“Something dark?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll read it to you. Raskolnikov is observing him. We’re seeing through his eyes.”

And Mitya read about the face that was a mask, the scarlet lips and blond hair, the too-blue eyes and heavy gaze. The face that looked younger than its years. The huge signet ring and light clothes. Light, light, summer clothes.

“His gaze is heavy but his clothes are light,” Mitya said. “His face is youthful, but his years are many.”

“Interesting,” said Valya. “What will you do when you leave school? Teach literature? Go into acting? Become a psychotherapist?”

“I want to be a pilot,” answered Mitya cheerfully. “What did you dream of being when you were at school?”

“You guess. You’re smart enough.”

“If I guess, will you read Svidrigailov?”

“And if you don’t guess, will you stop going on about him?”

“That’s reasonable.”

“Done,” she said, and added, “I play fair.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

Mitya looked at her. He wanted to knit his eyebrows, to become serious, gloomy, even. He wanted to look with a gaze as heavy as that with which Svidrigailov would have looked. Success eluded him. His mouth was disobedient and spread out into a smile, and his eyebrows did not want to come together.

“Why are you laughing?”

“You wanted to sell ice cream.”


“What, then? Seriously.”

“You don’t really want to be a pilot, do you?”

“I have no idea what I want. Honestly.”

“Nor do I. You’re clever. You have a silver tongue. I’ve never had any idea at all. I haven’t read your Svidrigailov at all. I’m nobody at all.”

“They’ve made you the boss.”

“Maybe that’s why.”

“Turn it down.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“How can you ask that? That shows straightaway that you’re still a boy. You haven’t had to live on your own money. Give it a try and you’ll understand. I’m actually grateful you don’t understand—it’s scary how you get to the heart of everything, as if you’ve already been alive for a hundred years. No. Some things you need experience to understand. What a relief. Why are you smiling?”

“Tell me what you spend your money on.”

“Why would I do that?”

“It’s interesting. Everyone spends it differently. How much do you get?”

“I don’t get it, I earn it. My father always said that to me: I don’t get, I earn. You ‘get’ something when your Mum gives it to you.”

“Agreed. That makes it all the more interesting.”

“Okay. Sixty thousand rubles a month. Not bad, but a lot goes on the flat—exactly half. I rent. I live away from my parents. Together…impossible.”

“How much on food?”

“I don’t know exactly. I don’t count it up like that. I don’t go to restaurants. Basically I don’t like them, I’m better at home, freer. I don’t have anything special, completely run-of-the-mill. I don’t know. 5,000 on food. Maybe 7,000. I love sweets. Stolichnye. They’re expensive.”

“25 left over. Say twenty.”

“What does ‘left over’ mean? Good luck with having any left over. I mean, there are loads of other expenses. Washing powder, soap, toothpaste. Clothes. I don’t spend a lot on clothes, but some, obviously. My shoes get worn out quickly. I’ve been like that since I was a child, always. I don’t know. Hairdresser. Manicure. Holidays.”

Mitya was silent. He settled more deeply into his armchair, and seemed to have forgotten about the woman with him. His gaze became unseeing.

The woman looked at the watch lying on the table, but a glare on the glass prevented her from making out the time.

“What kind of people are they, your staff?” asked Mitya suddenly from the depths of the old armchair.


“Specifically, specifically. You know, like Dostoevsky. Like about Svidrigailov.”

“They are…I don’t know.”

“No, not in the plural, in the singular. One by one. How many of them are there?”


“Five portraits.”

He was watching her. There was no longer even the shadow of a smile on his intent face.

She was silent.

“Who’s the oldest?” asked Mitya.

“Natalya Timofeyevna. I’ve been to her dacha. We all have. She invited us to her 60th, last year. Everything was clean and simple, but good. That’s her all over. Clean. Small. There’s an actress that she’s a little bit like. She’s funny. And finicky. She goes for walks in the woods. She treated us to mushrooms and her own cucumbers. I didn’t much like the cucumbers. I slept at her place and we talked in the morning. She told me about her children and grandchildren—she was missing them. She treated me a bit like a daughter. Something like that. If we’re going by age, Ksenia’s next. She was a beauty when she was young. Just gorgeous. How do I know? Everyone knows. A famous photographer took pictures of her. You can find her photos on the internet if you want. She was so slim, unearthly, straight out of Pushkin, I mean his poems, you understand, and now you wouldn’t guess, although she’s what…only a little over forty. A nasty tongue. Though sometimes it’s interesting to listen to her. She knows some famous people, from her youth, like on friendly terms, all sorts of trivia—interesting. Maybe she’s lying but you’ll never catch her at it. Then. If we’re going by age. Igor. He’s…a negotiator. I came up with that nickname for him. For myself. You know, like in a film, a negotiator. Someone wants to jump off a bridge, say, or from a ledge on the twentieth floor, or is sitting in a kindergarten with a bomb, and the negotiator persuades him to let everyone go, to calm down, not to jump, something like that. You have to be cute, not spook whoever it is. Your influence has to be just so hypnotic. Igor can do that. But when he’s not at work, he’s quite different. You could easily have had a conversation with him. He’d have answered about Svidrigailov, you’d have been amazed. He knows a lot. I walked down the street with him once, from work. To the subway. The trolleybuses were backed up for some reason and we decided to walk. He talked about the houses we were passing. He saw one of Napoleon’s houses. Interesting. That’s the kind of person he is.”

“I can’t for the life of me figure out what your work is. Tour guides-cum-negotiators?”

“Are you kidding? We sell doors. We take calls, fulfill orders, promote the goods. There are your negotiations and excursions, right there. We have to be able to do everything. Explain. Attract.”


“Not literally.”

She fell silent. Mitya sat silently in his armchair. He did not insist that she continue. He seemed to be thinking thoughts of his own, unconnected to Valya. She carefully put out her hand and touched the edge of the open page.

Black typographical letters that had coalesced into words, words that described an emigrant, a border jumper, a fugitive fleeing without a passport; one squeeze of the trigger and—welcome to America, abroad, the afterworld.

“Strange,” Mitya said. He stopped. Valya waited anxiously.

“It’s strange that such a gifted person should be vegetating in your office.”

“Why on earth? He enjoys his work. It’s not rubbish we’re selling. His salary is higher than mine. Don’t even go there.”

“You must be in love with him,” said Mitya.

His tone was indifferent. He spoke as if Valya were not sitting there beside him. As if she had already left and he was just talking to himself. As if he were addressing himself to her, yes, but only as a convenient form of expressing his thoughts.

“You don’t have any problems with your staff because you don’t have any staff. You never have. Never will. What kind of boss are you? How could anyone need you as a boss? Unless it’s a sophisticated form of mockery. But I don’t think so.”

From his refuge, Mitya could see Valya’s profile.

A small nose like a baby duck’s bill. A round, open forehead. Her chin a soft line.

“It wasn’t your staff you came here to learn how to talk with. It was Igor. So that you could get through to him. You’re hopelessly in love with him.”

Valya got up and headed out of the room.

Mitya heard her distracted steps, heard the click of the switch in the hall. Rustling.

She’s fiddling with the lock. No one can figure out how to open it straightaway. There’s a lever on the side.

Mitya hauled himself out of the soft, dark sinkhole of his armchair, and with big, quiet steps headed for the hall. He stood in the doorway.

“Are you going to run off in your slippers?”

“Open the door for me.”

“I apologise.”

“Open it.”

She stood at the door with her hands down, pursing her pale lips.

“I said something stupid. I’m sorry.”

She walked away from the door towards him. She looked him in the face.

“Everything you said was true. I’ve fallen for him. Like a complete fool. My pillow is wet. Literally. I howl into it. Yes, I wanted him to hear me. At least for my voice to get through. It’s written on my forehead, everyone can see how sick I am. He can too. He’s considerate. He’s afraid of me, okay, afraid I’ll suddenly do something ridiculous. But I don’t. I keep quiet. Open the door for me.”

Her face twisted painfully while she vented her anguish.

Mitya leaned over, picked up her still wet shoes, picked up her umbrella. Water leaked from it and made a puddle.

“Beautiful umbrella,” said Mitya. “I mean, the colours.”

“I’ll scream if you don’t open the door.”

“I will open it. My hands are full of your shoes and umbrella.”

She took her shoes and umbrella from him.

Mitya eased the lever on the side of the lock and opened the door. Valya went out just as she was, in her slippers. Mitya stood in the doorway. Heard the hum of the lift.

The lift fell silent at the bottom, on the first floor. Mitya hesitated, then closed the door.

He went back to his room and sat down on a chair, in Valya’s place. He tried to see the room through her eyes.

The sofa. Good that in the shadow you can’t see the stain. Books. What do they say about me? Nothing. To her—nothing. They’re a wall between me and her, paper bricks heavy with words. Word piles, foggy agglomerations of meaning. Dazzling insights. Nothing for her. Empty. The painting hanging up there, the painting of a house. It was right in front of her eyes. She saw it. It’s a good painting, from the flea market, Tishinka. Bought because of the house. The house which was but is no more but is there in the painting: childhood, a father’s motorcycle outside the window. The painting said nothing to her about me, nothing. And if it did, it lied.

Mitya picked up the watch from the table. Tick tock. He pulled out the crown. In the dark, in the depths of the armchair, in the place where Mitya had been sitting earlier, a shadow solidified. Shining eyes. The smell of the railway. A far distant railway. Old. Fuel oil. Cigarette smoke. Caustic, bringing tears to the eyes.

“What do you want, young man?”



“I would like to turn back time. Not much. I’ve just had a lesson. It didn’t go particularly well. We should start from the beginning. Fifty minutes in all. For the sake of accuracy.”


“Maybe it will go better the second time.”

The face in the armchair was inscrutable. So had Mitya been to the woman as she looked at him—inscrutable.

“It will not go better. Nor will it go worse. It will go exactly the same. I have already explained to you that you will not remember how it went the first time. You will go back to your old self who did not go through any of this.”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. I want to see her again, but I won’t. She won’t come back.”

“You do not seem like a fool, sir. How could it come out any different? Everything will be the same. A carousel. Hands going round in a circle. One and the same circle. All the same hands. And the same finale.”

“Interesting,” said Mitya. He was looking at his finger; it was freshly scratched. He’d scraped it opening the door. There’s a nail sticking out. I should have hammered it back in ages ago. There’s no reason for it to go sticking its head out. Stupid iron head.

“Interesting,” said Mitya again. ‘Maybe this isn’t the first time I’ve asked for a repeat. Maybe it’s the 105th time?”


“And when I go back, the rest of the world can’t come back with me.”

“You may be right. For example, there was an unfortunate murderer who wanted to turn back time so that he did not commit the murder. He went round in a circle for a long time until the watch ran down.”

“Poor man. So he stayed a murderer?”

“He went nowhere.”

Mitya stroked the glass timepiece with its fixed golden pupil.

“Well, anyway. Let’s go back.”


“It doesn’t matter.”

“As you say, my good sir.”

The figure dissolved, disappeared.

…Mitya flung open the door and found himself face to face with a young woman…


Elena Dolgopyat

Elena Dolgopyat (b. 1963) is from Murom, in the Vladimir region of Russia. She graduated from the Moscow Institute of Railway Engineering (now the Moscow State University of Railway Engineering) in 1986, and worked until 1989 as a programmer at a military facility in the Moscow region. In 1993, she graduated from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, and has worked at the State Central Museum of Cinema in Moscow since 1995.

She was first published in 1993, and since then has regularly published short stories and novellas. She is also the author of several film screenplays. Her three collections of short stories are: Rodina [Homeland], published in 2016 by Ripol Classic and shortlisted for the Russian National Bestseller prize in 2017; Russkoye [Russian, or Russianness], published in 2018 by Fluid FreeFly; and Chuzhaya Zhizn [Someone else's life], published in 2019 by AST. “The Quality of Time” is from Russkoye.

Richard Coombes

Richard Coombes is a writer and Russian-to-English translator living and working in the UK. His output includes original songs and stories, and English translations of Russian songs, poems, and stories. In 2015, he took early retirement in order to build his own language business. His translation of Akim Tarazi’s novella Retribution was included in an anthology of contemporary Kazakh literature, published in September 2019 by Cambridge University Press. His translation of Elena Dolgopyat’s short story “Science” appeared in B O D Y magazine in April 2020. His own creative writing to date includes short stories for both adults and children, and a novella. His stories have been published in Anti-Heroin Chic and Down in the Dirt magazines.

From Russkoye. Copyright (c) Elena Dolgopyat, 2018. English translation copyright (c) Richard Coombes, 2020.